I played golf today, 21 June 2015. Father’s Day.
My father died in 2005, two days after Christmas. Father’s Day, never something we went big on anyway, became just another stabbing pain nestling in the calendar, another landmark of our loss. For a while the only way I could strike back against it and release some small squab of my compressed emotion was by replying to each of the automated marketing emails I received asking me whether I was ‘ready for Father’s Day’ or whether I knew ‘what every Dad wanted’ with messages saying ‘My father is dead. Please stop emailing to remind me that my father is dead’. These emails went into the void, as did my rage and my sorrow. The emails kept coming and they still come and I still feel pain at every loathesome one of them and my father is still dead.
In early 2013 I became a father. That year, and the one that followed, I still dreaded Father’s Day, as I would dread forced contact with an open wound. Father’s Day, for all the people who still have fathers, is a miserable crutch, a day of excuses and ‘will-this-do?’s. If you love your father, tell him. Tell your mother too, should you be lucky enough to have one. Tell your friends you love them, if you have beloved friends. Tell your children, if you yourself are a parent. If you have love, share it and express it. Sharing is one of the things love is made for.
This year we went away, a surprise organised by my wife and her friend. Although Father’s Day was only the peg on which to hang a weekend in Cornwall, it did afford the opportunity for myself and a fellow father to be given some time to do something ‘for ourselves’. This, it was decided for us, would be golf.
When my dad used to take me golfing as a child it filled me with weird, directionless excitement and, ultimately, a bit of boredom and a sense of duty. Even if I couldn’t properly express it, I knew that it was important to him that I was there, pursuing this thing with him. He poured some significant part of him into the, arguably pointless, game of golf, and as someone who gave 20 years of his life to chasing a frisbee around the sports fields of the Western world, I can relate to that. He started playing, as I recall, when he was in his late-thirties/early-forties. As far as I remember, he didn’t do so for any ulterior motive, to climb some hitherto ungraspable social ladder, or even to carve out some time to hang out with his friends. Instead, he just did it because he thought it might be absorbing. And, having started, he worked hard at it, again something I can relate to. He worried at it until he became fairly good at it. And when it became something he became fairly good at he wanted to bring his two sons along so they could share in it, so they could see him doing this thing he had come to love.
Now. It seems to me that swinging a golf club and trying to hit a little ball as far or as accurately as possible is a challenging, damnably slippery and intrinsically fun thing to spend time doing. That’s a fact, I would say. Meanwhile, the inherent conservatism of capital ‘G’ Golf, the stale, deflated male-ness of golf culture, the sheer destructive, some would say criminal lunacy of irrigating, falsifying and beautifying chunks of the countryside only to economically prevent most people from enjoying them, is horrible. Those are facts, I would say. Some people say that one of the things that defines human psychology is the ability to hold two dissonant beliefs at the same time. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Either way, golf is pointless and lamentable and I feel an significant sense of calm along with real pleasure when I play it.
Golf is the church where I go once or twice a year to feel a communion with my father.
I feel it in the tight, tough grass beneath my feet, sending spikes down into the earth and receiving a reassuring sense of solidity in return. I feel it in the touch of the contents of a golf bag, the tiny, arbitrarily vital pieces of the jigsaw that is necessary to construct a viable round. Wooden tees, plastic markers, stubby pencils, a bag with pockets with forgotten contents, cards marked with scores you have no recollection of compiling. Scraps of grass which may have fallen from my gear, or maybe still be there from when Dad used to use the bag.
Clubs. I still use my fathers old clubs, mostly. They are a set that came from I don’t know where. I think my brother got Dad’s newer set, which means this set must be at least 25 years old. There, marked on the grips, are the words he would have pondered, the strange topographical markings he would have idly gazed over. There, on the shafts of the clubs is the tape he applied. There, in the wear to the handle of the putter, lie the imprints of his hands. I can slip my different hands into place and feel as if he is holding me in his hands, and holding me suspended in his dream of what the world had to offer, of how time could be used, of what pleasure and satisfaction could feel like, of how a sense of self could be chosen and grown and nurtured and shaped.
It’s there in the scents that seep across and out of the landscape of golf. The bitter dune grasses, the lip-smacking sea fret, the rising particles of a fairway evaporating in the sun, or sinking weight of a mist drifting down to wet a green.
He is there in the rituals, the modes of movement. As I address the ball on the tee, I form angles between my feet and the target, between my knees and my hips, between my arms and my wrists and the shaft of the club. These shapes and alignments are part of an occult semaphore I developed under my father’s direction. Only he and my brother would truly recognise them, but I know they still would. They are as much a signifier of me as my walk, the way I scrunch my eyes when I blink, the hopeless, helpless way I dance.
In constructing and executing my swing, I build and release tension through my shoulders, back and legs as my arms are pitched around by the resultant forced. I feel each time, for around a second, that I have briefly become my father. The golf shot as transubstantiation.
When I was a child golf, like the life of my father it formed a part of, was an alien world I could not interpret. Now, once or twice a year, I want nothing more than to escape back into that alien world and to be able to look around and live within it for a time. The more distant in time my father’s life becomes from my own, and the more similar in shape my own life begins to feel to my father’s, the more familiar and welcoming this place begins to feel.